A woman is continuously attacked by a herd of sea birds. Gradually, the attack spreads over a whole town. Questions are raised but no solid reasons are provided – scientific or otherwise. When I first saw The Birds (1963), I was too shocked to register the catastrophic signals that the film suggested. But on revisiting the film during this lockdown, its conflict hit me on a separate level. The Birds spoke to me of helplessness in the face of the inevitable in ways that I hadn’t considered earlier.
Alfred Hitchock researched a strange real-life attack by Sooty Shearwaters on Capitola, California, in 1961, in preparation for the film, adapted loosely from a novella by Daphne Du Maurier. The attack is believed to have occurred after the birds ate anchovies, suffered diatom poisoning and became aggressive.
The film starts off with a chance encounter in a San Francisco bird shop between socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). It leads Daniels to impulsively follow Brenner to his hometown of Bodega Bay. As they are about to meet, a seagull swoops down and wounds her forehead. This is the first in a series of escalating attacks by birds on the town.
Is this a political allegory? Is it a commentary on community systems and macrocosmic societal revelations? Is it a revenge saga of the oppressed? The answers are never really there. Hitchcock’s The Birds is perhaps his most opaque work as a filmmaker. His other works, predominantly mystery thrillers, have a definitive narrative strand and flow of action. The Birds is still not a complete departure from his other works like Notorious, Vertigo and Rear Window – here too, the suspense is largely psychological and themes of faith, romantic obsession, or moral conflict take centerstage. But what makes The Birds stand out from the rest of his filmography is that it’s his only film that envisions total societal breakdown, a disaster of the proportions of a medieval plague.
The Birds is a film in which civilizational disaster is abrupt, all-consuming, and catastrophic. Birds collectively mass attack human beings out of the blue. The coronavirus pandemic, on the other hand, feels cumulatively unprecedented but still scientifically reasoned and argued. Researchers and experts have proved how Covid- 19 is a zoonotic disease – one that is transmitted from animals to humans. The symptoms are serious, our lack of prior exposure means humans have no existing antibodies to defend themselves against the disease. But for all the vastly different reasons for which the contextualisation seems unreasonable, it has to be accepted that the past few months of restrictive measures and lockdowns have understandably bred stress and anxiety. Social networks are disrupted, and insecurity and financial strains with jobs in jeopardy. And is is this stress that felt cathartic while experiencing The Birds for a second time.
In The Birds, the violence is not a reciprocal act of violence, as the “revenge of nature” mode of interpretation would imply. In fact, the very randomness, irrationality, and suddenness of the attack is the key to understanding the film. But the violence seeks a critical explanation in terms of charting a return of the repressed, a release of primitive forces of sex and appetite that have been subdued but never fully administered. Critics have brought in the incestuous and sexual tensions among the principal characters as an interpretation of the violence- that does not erupt in actual conflict between them but in the vicious and unprovoked attack of the birds.
The logic of violence in the film is demonstrated in a scene in which Melanie is directly accused of causing the disaster. Hitchcock sharpens his point with characteristic economy, reducing it to a single confrontation between two people. The way Melane is scapegoated seems unreasonable, and yet if we turn to the present situation, it still holds true of modern society. Take the coronavirus situation: several administrations have blamed the Chinese government for the genesis of the COVID-19. Whatever is the conclusion, there is no denying the extent to which the present situation serves as a reminder that human and environmental health are closely linked. The monstrosity of desire and its capacity to turn people into rivals are palpable in both the cases. Who is the scapegoat here? Who is manipulating whom? The answers are still not there.
The lack of a resolution in The Birds‘s conclusion continues to shock. The last shot is from the viewpoint of the birds surrounding the home as the family quietly drives by. I found this particularly significant in the present scenario, as a force of contagion, as a symbol of anarchic and spiraling violence, that is inevitably linked to human beings’ attempt to control nature. The Birds is that rare piece of cinema that mirrors the current society in ways that is unforseen, and yet reclaims every single point it navigates with shocking clarity of depth and meaning.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.